The current war raging throughout Syria and Iraq is profoundly singular, because it combines itself with the social and environmental collapse, combined with the severe effects of climate change, known by these societies.
In Iraq, the current war is waged between, on the one hand, the Kurdish forces, and the Iraqi army, both supported in a way or another by the Iranian forces and air strikes delivered by the US-led coalition (Rowan Scarborough, “Iranian Quds force aiding Iraqi Shiites with Obama administration’s blessing”, The Washington Times, September 20, 2014) and the aggressor, the Islamic State, on the other (Valantin, “Environment, Climate Change, War and the State”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 16, 2015). It is in itself politically quite strange, given its character of “coalition of the enemies” against a common and very dangerous foe.
The Iraqi war is even more singular considering it takes place in a country that is devastated down to the very depth of its social and environmental fabric. This devastation goes much beyond the horrible “banality” of war, because the transformation of Iraq through both industrial development and modern war has installed the country in a dynamic of social-environmental collapse (Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005).
This means that the Iraqi spiral of collapse influences the goals of war of the different protagonists, whatever their wishes. In other terms, the current Iraqi war could very well be highlighting what means waging war in a world where countries are taken into the new nexus of resource wars (Michael Klare, Resource wars, 2002) coupled with social and environmental catastrophe. It would then have major consequences for the future of war and foreign policy.
Offense, defence and collapse
The political will of the Islamic State to take over Iraq and Syria (at the very least) is demonstrated by its strategy of territorial conquest in Iraq (Helene Lavoix, “Portal to the Islamic State war”, The Red Team Analysis Society). It has allowed them to install themselves from the Syrian border to the Kurdish north, to take Mosul, and to attack the suburbs of Bagdad, while destroying entire cities and forcing the Yazidi population to flee in order to avoid massacre, if not genocide (Lavoix, ibid). Since the summer of 2015, and since March 2015 and the Iraqi offensive on Tikrit, a series of counteroffensives are forcing them to be on the defensive
In the same movement, the IS troops have controlled, or tried to control, several dams, such as the Fallujah dam in spring 2014, the Mosul dam in August 2014, dubbed by the US Army corps of engineers as “the most dangerous dam in the world” (US Army Corps of engineers, Geologic setting of the Mosul dam and its engineering implication, 2007), given its very fragile foundations that necessitate constant works.
If the Mosul dam were to collapse, it could trigger a giant flood all along the Tigris River, up to Bagdad (Fred Pearce, “MidEast Water Wars: In Iraq, a Battle for Control of water”,Yale 360°, 25 August 2014). The Fallujah dam has been used by the IS to cause extensive flooding in the Anbar province in order to accelerate population displacement (Jessica D. Lewis, “Warning Intelligence Update: ISIS Besieged Areas near Bagdad on the Eve of Elections”, Institute for the Study of Iraq War Updates, April 25 2014).
As Carl von Clausewitz wrote “But defence has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War: book one, 1832). Applied to the Islamic State, this reasoning reveals the political will of the political authorities of IS of enlarging as much as possible their territory in Middle East, through a relentless offensive strategy, which is coherent with the motto of IS “remaining and expanding” (Hélène Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops Dabiq 1 to 8 – Access to issues“, The Red Team Analysis)
If this strategy is quite conventional, the way it is implemented becomes singular, because of the mix of conventional war ways and means, but also through a systematic transformation of large swaths of the Tigris River and the territories it crosses – i.e entire segments of the Iraqi water and ground environment – into weapons (Valantin, ibid). Thus, dams and oil reservoirs are used as what we shall call here “weapons of regional destruction”.
In other terms, the IS strategists and tacticians have been trying their utmost to overwhelm their opponents through a mix of rural guerrilla and urban warfare combined with the weaponization of the dams and of the rivers, especially during the fights that opposed them to the Iraqi forces during the spring of 2014 (Fred Pearce, “MidEast Water Wars: In Iraq, a Battle for Control of water”,Yale 360°, 25 august 2014).
This environmental warfare strategy looks like it could have been “inspired” by the way Saddam Hussein used the dams in order to dry up the southern Iraqi marshlands in 1991-1992, after the revolt of the Iraqi Shiites (Trainor and Gordon, The General’s war, 1995) that were living in this part of the country (Valantin, “The Persian Gulf, Between Power and Collapse”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 9, 2013), following the defeat of the Iraqi army in Kuwait.
Thus, the marshlands became much more accessible to the Iraqi army, which then led a particularly savage repression in the region. The IS goes several steps further, by actively using dams and water as weapons on the battlefield (Pearce, ibid).
In other terms, they use and alter the environment as an attack and defence war machine. Thus, strategy is now literally transforming and “producing” the Iraqi environment, which is more and more “manmade” by war. This deep transformation of the environment by human practices in Iraq is nothing but one the multiple versions of what more and more researchers call “the Anthropocene”.
Iraq: Welcome to the Anthropocene
Iraq’s dynamic of collapse must be understood for what it is, that is to say an extreme form of the current planetary condition that numerous geophysicists define as the Anthropocene.
This concept means that the new geological and biological era is one where the human species has become the principal source of pressure on the planetary environment. Meanwhile, multiple feedbacks emerge from this constantly modified planetary environment and put societies under new kind of pressures. As the Royal Society defines it:
“Anthropogenic changes to the Earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere are now so great and so rapid that the concept of a new geological epoch defined by the action of humans, the Anthropocene, is widely and seriously debated.” (Jan Zalasiewicz, “The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time”, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, 2011).
In Iraq, the interactions between war, the environment, and the population have very badly and deeply damaged the link between the social fabric and the life conditions naturally provided by the environment. These last thirty-five years, war has been a very distinctive engine of the way Iraq has developed itself starting with the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), then the Gulf war (1990-1991), the international embargo (1990-2003), the US-led invasion and occupation (2003-2010), the social and confessional tensions of the Maliki Government (2010-2015) (Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, 2012), the IS offensive and the Kurdish-Iran-US-led coalition – Iraqi counter offensive (2014-2015) (“Iraqi Kurds battle Islamic State Fighters”, Al Jazeera, 17 August 2014).
Consequently, the Iraqi social link is torn apart by the conflicts that pit guerrillas against guerillas, Shiites militant factions against Sunni ones, tribes against tribes, knowing that the latter are the basic social unities of the country (Dahr Jamail, “A nation on the brink”, Truth Out, July 17, 2014). Meanwhile, resulting population displacement further destroys the social link (Georges Corm, Le Proche Orient éclaté, 2012).
While being very difficult to evaluate precisely, the number of Iraqi refugees could be as high as two million people, scattered in Jordan and, from 2003 to the start of the civil war in 2011, in Syria, on a total population of 32,5 millions of people (International rescue Committee, Iraqis in Crisis, Sept. 2014).
Furthermore, more than 750.000 people have become internally displaced person (IDP), while more than a million people have fled. It must be remembered that the presence of a huge refugees population puts host regions, such as the Iraqi Kurdistan, and Jordan, which lack food, water, drugs, settlements, for these people, under a lot of strain (2015 UNHCR country operations profile-Iraq, UNHCR).
The same process of war-led disaggregation transforms and destroys the environment, turning the biosphere from one where conditions conducive to life thrive, to one where social and biological tensions develop, with negative impact on life. For example, the use of 1200 tons of depleted uranium (DU) munitions by American troops during the invasion of 2003 has intoxicated whole regions, among them Basra, which could explain an impressive rise in new illnesses, such as kidney, lung and renal diseases and cancers, which numbers have gone from 40 for 100.000 in 1991, then to 800 to 100.000 after the first Gulf war, to 1600 for 100.000 after 2003 (Dahr Jamail, “Iraqi doctors call Uranium depleted use “genocide”, Truth Out, Oct.14, 2014).
It seems that the DU munitions, once projected, degrade slowly and intoxicate the air, the water and the soil, thus poisoning vegetal and animal life, as well as human beings. Furthermore, this situation is going to last as long as the radioactive particles remain in the environment, (Jamail, ibid). Thus, the environment evolves from a sustainable condition for human and social life to a dangerously intoxicating one.
This “passive” transformation of the Iraqi environment through this long war pollution is combined with the active weaponization of the river Tigris and the related deep social-environmental degradation of the regions flooded for strategic purpose. Meanwhile, the dams in Turkey (Valantin, “Turkey, an energy and environmental power”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 23 February 2015), Syria and Iran are used by national and, or, regional, political authorities to retain a greater proportion of water, thus depriving the Iraqi agriculture and electricity production of a much necessary resource (Martin Chulov, “Is Iraq next crisis ecological?“, Tom Dispatch, December 13, 2009).
This situation is made even more dangerous by the fact that the whole region is hammered by climate change, and will increasingly suffer from it (UNEP, Climate change in Iraq, 2012).
So, in Iraq, the Anthropocene situation is the result of a development where the oil, war, water and the environment have merged into a singularity that threatens the very existence of the Iraqi people. It is one where the diverse processes of devastation have become both strategic objectives, and, we have seen, strategic weapons.
The new strategic era of Anthropocene wars
Turning the dams and the Tigris River into weapons is both a symptom and a driver of the war dimension of the Anthropocene. In fact, it could be said that, by now, the Iraqi environment has become a continuation of the different phases of the war started in 1980, and even sometimes an instrument for war.
So, what the current phase of the long Iraqi war reveals is the emergence of a new breed of combatants, that we call the “Anthropocene warriors”, who are able to plan and fight in a social and environmental situation saturated and transformed by human activities, war being one of these, that verges on the edge of collapse, or who are able to adapt to that evolving set of “war and natural” conditions.
The IS fighters and strategists are members of this new breed, as well as some strategists, such as the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander-in-chief of the Al Quds force, which is the foreign influence and operational arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Qassem Soleimani is in charge, for the Iranian side, of the military coordination between the Kurdish, the Iraqi and the Iranian forces in Iraq, (Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander”, The New Yorker, September 30, 2013), and became “officially” visible with the battle for the Mosul dam during the summer 2014 (Mathieu Slama, “Qui est Qassem Souleimani, le nouvel ennemi juré de l’Etat Islamique ?” Le Huffington Post, 27/03/2014).
It could be said that Qassem Soleimani has been, during his whole professional life, a man which experience has prepared him to adapt to the Anthropocene wars, having fought during the Iran-Iraq war, and since then having become a key player of the Iran military influence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq (Caleb Weiss, “Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive”, Threat Matrix, a blog of the Long War Journal, March 5, 2015). Today, he leads Iranian and Iraqi forces on Iraqi battlefields (Scarborough, ibid) installed in an environment saturated by a nexus of water, pollution, improvised explosive engines, guerrillas and thus turned from life condition and support into an environment turned into a continuation of war through other means.
The emergence of this new kind of war and warriors imposes a very strange strategic question: if, normally, the final goal of war is peace (Edward Luttwak, Strategy – The logic of war and peace, 2002), what can peace be in a country that has become dangerously less and less sustainable, very difficultly liveable, and where the authority of the state is so weak and delegitimise that multiple levels of authority and violence are developing?
Furthermore, this rapid dismantlement of the central political authority and the installation of an enduring state of civil war, combined with unrealistic financial conditions imposed by Baghdad on the oil companies (Marin Katusa, The Colder war, 2014), drives oil companies out of this oil rich country, cutting it from its only financial prospect of development.
In other terms, are the Anthropocene wars political dead-ends, because they stop not with the defeat of one of the belligerents, but with the collapse of the conditions upon which peace and social life rest upon? We may also wonder if the Anthropocene wars are not currently engulfing the whole Middle East.
To be (soon) continued
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.